Twenty four hours of light


Today it is ‘World Wide Candle Lighting Day’. From seven to eight tonight, when somewhere else in the world it is already eight o clock, in the townhall of my city (and in a lot of places elsewhere in my time zone) candles will be lit. And when it is eight o clock here, somewhere else in the world it is seven o’clock and there will be candle lightning there. And so, hour after hour, over the whole world there will be candles burning for twenty four hours in a raw in remembrance of our deceased children.

I was joining this event last year with my family and it was a very special moment. It was special to be together with other parents who lost a child. It was special to experience this with the six of us. And it was special because during the lighting of the candles, the names of the children we lost were called.

We plan to go again this evening. It is so nice to hear Amanda’s name spoken out loud. It is so weird to notice what that does to us. I think it is because when her name is called, her existence is acknowledged. And she is in my system, in my head, but speaking about her doesn’t come naturally. Because no one sees her and I can’t tell if she already starts to talk, that she has the same curly hair as her sister had and where I bought her little shoes.

And it is so good to do this with the six of us. I wrote somewhere earlier: mourning together is almost impossible and I still think it is true. When I don’t need to cry, someone else does. When I am having a hard time, someone else thinks: ‘please, not now!’ And this is okay and understandable, but it makes ‘mourning together’ something that just is not possible.

Mourning is something individual, while in the meantime we long for contact, also in our grief. That is why such a moment, where we go together to the townhall, write down her name, hear her name called and cry or not, is an important and precious ritual to express the sorrow and the connection we all have, even though we are very different in how we process this.

Today it is World Wide Candle Lighting Day and I think this comes in a good time. Last week we celebrated ‘Sinterklaas’ which is a Dutch tradition where we give each other gifts wrapped in a craft with a poem. And actually more gifts are given. And as I was preparing the gifts for my children, the pain of loss came up now an then. I do not have gifts for her. All the gifts I bought are for children above nine. And I wonder how she is doing. If God is spoiling her. And I realize that the love she receives now, is so much bigger than gifts can ever communicate.

And after World Wide Candle Lighting Day, Christmas comes quite quickly, where everything revolves around a baby. God who became helpless to show us His love. The Almighty who became powerless to draw us close to His heart. In our family, everyone gets a book on December 25. A tradition we took over from the church we grew up in (In Holland it was not common to give gifts with Christmas, we do that on December 5 with Sinterklaas). We go for a long walk and we do a grill party at home. We visit our family. And again we will do this without her. Especially on these special days, the loss feels extra heavy.

Then we will celebrate New Year’s Eve. We think about what we can thank and pray for. We write everything down in two columns on a big piece of paper: ‘we thank for 2018 …’ and ‘we pray for 2019…’. And then there is again a lot where we are thankful for, there are prayers answered and we look forward for what is coming. And there are prayers unanswered, longings unfulfilled. The missing of Amanda has not diminished. Some problems are much more severe and persistent than we hoped. And we lay that down too at the One who oversees it all and knows what He is doing.

I like it that between all those festivities, there is World Wide Lighting Candle Day. To lit a candle, to hear Amanda’s name called, to cry together or not. Because she indeed is always an invisible but tangible part of us.

Published in Dutch on December 4, 2018


I will never forget you

Last week I heard a beautiful song about the love of God for Israel.

Basically it’s verses from Isaiah quoted and the words sounded pretty familiar to me. But then something deep happened when I heard the chorus and the second verse:

No I’ll never forget you. I’ll never forsake you. I will never forget my own.

Does a mother forget her baby. Or a woman the child in her womb? Yet even if she should forget. I will never forget my own.

The video clip shows a woman wearing dark clothes holding a small child in her arms. It evoked this deep longing in me and the dark clothes added to that as it reminded me of mourning.

But this song isn’t about me!It is about God longing for His people and I knew that very well. Still, I couldn’t stop crying when the chorus was repeated: No I’ll never forget you.I’ll never forsake you. I will never forget my own.

This is me. This is also me! The longing this chorus gives words to, describes how I feel about my stillborn baby. Somehow at that moment I felt that this verse from the bible was giving me permission to grieve, to feel this deep ache inside of me. Of course I know I don’t need permission for that, but sometimes people ask ‘If I am not over it yet’ and it makes me wonder if I am too dramatic and should feel differently. But here the bible clearly states that it is impossible for a mother to forget her baby. It gives a beautiful and accurate picture of what motherly love is.

And God’s love is even deeper. God is longing more for His people then a mother longs for her child.

I think it is mind boggling and I have spend quite some hours figuring out what this means. Listening to this song, letting the words sink in, figuring out what these feelings that were evoked are about, brought me to this amazing realization: Knowing how it feels to lose a child I so deeply love, longing for a child I will never get to meet in this life, actually now has brought me to understand more of the depths of God’s love.

Losing Amanda, longing for her, grieving over her, learning to live without her, trying to figure out what I believe and hope and live for, brought me to a deeper understanding of how desperately God longs for us to come closer to Him. And I am even more deeply convinced that He will never forget me, He will never forsake me. As I will never forget my dear baby girl.

About: Peter and Carin van Essen: Never forget,

Combing the beach: Jutten

Written in Dutch on December 23 2017

Yesterday, it was nine months ago that our little Amanda came into this world. A lot has happened since. ‘The death of a baby is like a heavy storm that wrecks the ship of life. The woeparents are drowning persons who are dazed and surprised to see that they are still alive. Their ships are stranded. And from drowning men they become ‘jutters’ (a Dutch word for ‘those who comb the beach’ for brevity I’ll use the Dutch word hereafter). They are searching for what is still usefull. They look for ways to balance their ship again.’ These words from Kathy Beckers-Mansell describe painfully precise the process we’re in.

When Amanda died, we lost all orientation. It was indeed as if we were shipwrecked and subsequently realized we survived and were floated around on a debris. We were bewildered asking ourselves how to go on, what we should feel, how to deal with this. We started to do this ‘jutten’: what is still useful of all we had learned, collected, build up, believed and done in our lives? Now it came down to it. And at the same time: now it is about surviving. We clamped to what seemed important to us right now, at thís moment. How we have changed. Or perhaps we didn’t. Maybe we became more ourselves.

For here I am. Sat down and writing. Finally I am writing. I have always been a writer, but I was too afraid to say what I think and that fear kept me from publishing. But some months ago, in July, I could not withhold myself anymore. I had to share the words I tried to find for what is going on inside of me. Maybe because shared sorrow is half sorrow indeed. And writing gets some pressure off of me.

I am in the process of making the baby-album of Amanda. To add the right words to it, I have been reading some of my diaries. It is quite bizarre to read that what I thought when I was pregnant, and the things I did at that time, helped me with ‘jutten’ afterwards.

While I was pregnant, I read The Shack of Paul W. Young, wherein a man looses his fifth (!) child through a gruesome crime. Since her death he is wrestling with ‘the great sadness’ (what a wonderful description of the feeling that numbs me when another wave of grief has come over me) and his faith is all but personal and intimate. Young masterly brings deep questions about life to the table and describes surprisingly well how your image of God can be colored by your experiences. Young also shows that God in fact is much bigger and that in this life there is no answer to: Why? But there is an answer to: Are You there?

I reread The Shack in a Dutch translation after Amanda’s death. And last week Henk and I watched the movie that has been made of this book. And again and again, and not only through this story of Young, I am convinced that it is okay what we feel, what we think, where we are. And it is good to pour out your heart with God. He can handle it and He is with us.

We are ‘Jutters’ (Combers of the beach) indeed and we need to find our trust and our course again. We are actually walking a road. Grief does not stay the same. It changes. There are new aspects coming to surface. Sometimes very raw, sometimes bittersweet. But there is also growing new trust. There is development. It is not the same as it was in the past, but it is also not the same as shortly after Amanda’s death.

If you ask me know how I am doing, I still find it hard to give an answer. I am fine in a way. We are alive, we do the right things. We cry if we have to cry, we laugh about things that are pretty and good or just funny. Amanda is a part of our life, she is part of our family. And we ‘just’ live on. Changed. We try to hold onto the word that in the coming Christmas season will be repeated all over the world: Immanuel: God is with us. And we go on. To ‘Jutten’.

Although your feet never walked

November 30 2017, I began to make a photo album in memory of Amanda. I wrote down her names, her date of birth, death and funeral in my most beautiful handwriting. Then I pasted a photo of the imprint of her feet. And I wrote this poem underneath:

Although your feet never walked,
not even moved
when you came.

Still you crawled into our world,
moved us,
set us aflame.

You left an imprint,
a trace impossible to erase.
I can talk about it forever, 
So deep is our joy and our missing.

Our joy, because you were welcome,
perfect and beautiful.
We spent many times thanking for you.
You were a gift.

And our missing, for we wanted to see you
grow up here
To watch you play along
and frolic with our other children.

Entrusting you to the earth God formed you from,
was the hardest thing I’ve ever done.
But, however small you were,
your fragile existence was also
your powerful testimony.

You’ve proven the existence of a Creator.
So wonderfully beautiful your were made inside of me.

You’ve proven the existence of Love.
So deep is our pride and our grief since you died.

Although your feet never walked,
not even moved
when you came.
Still you left an imprint,
A trace
And my heart testifies of it.

first published in Dutch on November 30,2017

Baby album

First published in Dutch on November 27, 2017

I was in the Hema[i] this morning and I bought a photo album in exactly the same size and layout as the photo-albums I have for my other children.

My husband and I were in the shopping center for Sinterklaas gifts[ii] and there, in the Hema, I had the feeling that it was time to do this. It was time to choose a beautiful album for my fifth child. Tears ran down my cheeks. Also because I was moved and proud in some way. That I had the courage to this.

For my other children I started to make a photo album before they were born. I pasted in the postcards people send me with: ‘congratulations you are pregnant’, photos of the echo’s and of my growing belly. And I added parts I copied out of my diary wherein I dreamed or prayed for my unborn child. I wrote down the presents my little one had received from grandpa’s and grandma’s and uncles and aunts. And after the baby was born, I added the baby pictures.

I had not begun an album yet for Amanda before she was born. Something was holding me back.

Right now, I keep the echo pictures in a plastic little map in front of my calendar and I see them quite often. But the end of the year is coming, I need the calendar for next year already more than the one of 2017 and I am almost sure I will not transfer the pictures to this new one. We only took pictures of my big belly after we knew Amanda had passed away. And I had not yet chosen the quotes I wanted to copy out of my diary, though I wrote a lot while I was pregnant. The photos taken after her birth are in a small map in her room, together with her birth and death certificate, our wedding book with the names of our five children and the imprints of her little feet.

But now I have a real, big baby-photo album. In the coming days I want to start with pasting in the proofs of how welcome and loved she was, even before being born. I am very happy with it and at the same time my eyes are filled with tears if I think about what I am going to do. It will be hard.

In the albums of my other children, I wrote, before their birth: ‘album for my first (2nd/3rd/4th) child’.  And after they were born, I added their names in my most beautiful hand writing, together with the date and time of birth. It was a special moment for me to do that. It was a sort of confirmation of what was enriched in our family and how special this child was for me.

But now. ‘Album for my fifth child, Susan Amanda Marsman, born March 22, 2017 at 23:09’?  That doesn’t work. I can not do this for her. She will never look in it, as her brothers and sisters do in their albums, again and again. I can not write down memories for her.

Still I want to fill an album. As a memory of her short existence. A monument of my love for her. And an acknowledgement of who she was and is. Manu Keirse said in a television program[iii] about another mother: ‘although her two children have died, she still will always be the mother of those two children.’ And so, this pink photo album will be a baby album ‘in loving memory of my fifth child, Susan Amanda Marsman’. Because that is who she is always will be. Our fifth child.

[i] Hema is a Dutch warehouse where you can buy all kind of things.
[ii] In Holland, a lot of people don’t give each other presents at Christmas, but on December 5, when we celebrate ‘Sinterklaas’.
[iii] De verwondering, On Dutch Television, NPO: November 27, 2017, you can watch it here:

All Souls Day

We received an invitation in our mailbox last week. It was from the church in our neighborhood. They invited all neighbors to come and light a candle for a beloved one.

My eldest gave it to me without saying a word. Does she want to go there? I read the invitation and I feel I’m attracted to it. Again I am surprised about how much I am changed. In the past I never understood why someone would want to light a candle for someone who passed away. What is the point? You can’t get the person back by doing that. I didn’t like rituals and things like that. But now, I want to go there. And asking my husband, he feels the same.

Mourning together is an impossibility. I have given up on that some time ago. There is room for grief in our family. Who wants, can talk about Amanda, or about death, or about a baby. But when one of us feels the need to bring his or her sorrow to the table, another one might just not want that at that moment. We’ve found that it is very hard to give shape to this empty place we all do feel. I don’t want to ignore, but I also don’t want to push.

I find mourning on my own already quite hard. I just don’t know what to do anymore. I don’t feel much, don’t think much. In my head a line is resonating, a line I read in an article about the death of a child. ‘Are you dealing a bit?’ Somebody asked. ‘No’, said the wife of the author, ‘He is still dead’.

She is still dead. That is what I realize also and the inevitability and inescapability is dawning more and more on me, but I can’t deal with it really. I wished I could just cry some more. Because it was a year ago yesterday that I held a positive pregnancy test in my hands, for example. But today it seems as if this happened in another life, to someone else. I am only thinking: ‘she is still dead’. Over and over again.

We all feel that. Each of us in a different way, but we all miss her and we all need to figure out how to live with that. I’ve found that I am grateful when I think about how well she is doing. That she’s been taking care of, that she, given a choice, probably wouldn’t want to go back to us. But I also notice that there is a hole in my heart. There is love I can’t give away. I always come short of a child.

With my other children I have ‘Mommy-…..’-time. Time wherein I do something with only the child whose name fills the dots. And I realize I need to do the same for her. I need to make ‘Mommy-Amanda-time’. And although I can’t breastfeed her, put her in bath quietly, or, as I do with my other children, when she is older: eating cake in the city center, making a walk and talk about something deep, or just making a jigsaw together, I can focus my attention on her alone for some time. Just be busy with her.

So I think that is why we accept this invitation tonight. In order to stand still together, to remember her. To mourn together, whatever that is.

First published in Dutch on November 2, 2017

Plowing through the mud

I walk along the water on a slippery, muddy path. The wind is blowing wildly and the clouds are grey. Rain is coming and all of this together is exactly what I need right now. Cold wind, drizzly rain, sloshing water, muddy path that I need to walk carefully so that I do not slip. This is how my life feels like.

I just posted a card in the door of someone whose end is drawing near. I do not know if this person appreciates it, but I just want to let them know that I think of them and pray for them. I don’t even know if this family knows God and believes in Him.

Walking further I wonder why I wrote that card. That muddy, slippery road is as how my life appears to be. And that not only applies to me. It applies to them also. And many others, maybe you yourself, can relate to that.

I think I just wanted to reach out to them. To walk these paths together. So that I can grasp your hand when you threaten to sink away in the mud or almost slip. Just as I thankfully have people around me who are not afraid to slither with me and who reach out to me when I have fallen or allowed it to drag me away.

Someone sent me a long article about grief. One of the things that touched me in it was that the author said that life consists of a long series of losses. If your life is calm, than that is actually more extraordinary than when your life is full of crises.

It also said that it is good to face your sorrow and to show it to others, because we are also unique in how we mourn. I thought that was rather peculiar. But to me, that sounds a lot better than the cliché I heard quite a lot that ‘everybody mourns in their own way, there is nothing good or wrong’. There is truth in that (although I don’t know how longing for whiskey and cigars can be called really good), but what I hear in this is: ‘I don’t care how you experience your grief’. And it makes me feel lonely.

But that we are all unique and so each of us experience grief uniquely, and that in that uniqueness we can also mirror something of Gods colorfulness, that makes me feel connected. And that is why I hereby show you my grief.

I plow through the mud and make sure that I don’t fall or slip or sink away. If you are doing the same right now, please know that you are not alone and that your grief may be heard and seen.

First written in Dutch on October 11, 2017